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San Francisco Chronicle

Monday December 3, 2007

Jon Carroll

Finally, people who sincerely care about decaying infrastructure and take unilateral unpaid action to fix it. And what happens? They get arrested.

This is such a wonderful story. It should serve as an example to us all, and as a shining light to the young. Yes, you can do something positive for society, while still breaking the law and cheesing everybody off! It's win-win.

In Paris, in the '80s and '90s, there was a group of students who liked throwing parties in the tunnels underneath Paris. These tunnels were technically closed to the public, but kids will be kids. So these students grew up and they forgot all about - wait, no, they didn't! They remembered! They kept the faith.

They formed an organization called UX. It is, according to the Guardian, a newspaper in England that guards things, a group of about 150 people broken up into various cells with specialized functions. Some of them restore crypts and public monuments, others throw parties and poetry readings in unauthorized locations, others enjoy breaking into buildings.

Do they do bad things when they break into buildings? No, they do good things.

You may have heard of UX. Remember in 2004, when police discovered a fully functioning movie theater, with attached bar and restaurant, underneath the Seine? It was illegal, but its illegality did not spark a lot of wrath and public condemnation. Most people said, "That's pretty cool," although they said it in French.

Enter the Untergunther, a branch of the UX dedicated to restoring France's cultural landmarks. One such landmark is the Pantheon, a temple-like building - it began life as a church - that is the burial place for famous French people, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. It's also the place where Foucault set up his famous pendulum that proved that the Earth was spinning, which came as a relief to people who had been wrestling with the whole day-night thing.

Inside the Pantheon was a 150-year-old clock, the Wagner clock, an elaborate affair about 6 feet in diameter with lots of fabulous gears. The clock had been allowed to sit and rust since the 1960s. One of the members of Untergunther was Jean-Baptiste Viot, a clockmaker. In September 2005, Viot and a few other people allowed themselves to be locked inside the Pantheon. They discovered a useful side door. Viot made a key - clockmakers are very good locksmiths - and the group came and went as it chose.

In an upstairs room, they set up an entire workshop. (Sneaking in the boards for the chairs and tables used to furnish the workshop was among the more challenging tasks.) They hooked up to the building's electrical system, and also found an Internet connection. It was, in short, the world's coolest playhouse.

But did they play? Well, maybe a little. But mostly they went to work restoring the old clock. (For some very cool pictures, see www.urban-resources.net/untergunther.html.) When they were done, they debated whether to tell the Pantheon official about their prank/good deed.

"We decided to tell them in the end so that they would know to wind the clock up so it would still work," said Lazar Klausmann, the official spokesman for UX. (That's when you know your organization has staying power - when it needs an official spokesperson.) "The Pantheon's administrator thought it was a hoax at first, but when we showed him the clock, and then took him up to our workshop, he had to take a deep breath and sit down."

One reason for his shock and awe may have been the sudden realization that he would probably be fired. People are not supposed to able to move freely into and out of public monuments - although they do, quite regularly. Even I have done it; I illicitly climbed a noted Bay Area monument a very long time ago with people whose names I shall never utter.

The reason for the ease and quantity of benign break-ins is simple: motivation. The trespassers really want to trespass and will use all their stealth and daring, while the security people just want a better job or at least a cup of coffee.

The administrator was in fact fired, and the people in charge of the building took the unauthorized clock repairers to court, which is how the whole story came out. But, good news, they were cleared of all charges on the basis of, come on, these are the good guys. Or something - my grasp of French law is not extensive.

Understand, kids, don't try this at home. Try it at a public monument.

Said Klausmann: "We would like to be able to replace the state in the areas it is incompetent, but our means are limited and we can only do a fraction of what needs to be done. There's so much to do in Paris that we won't manage in our lifetime."